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Marina Warner: “I’ve always found it very hard to know what I’m like”

One of Britain’s most lauded public intellectuals, Marina Warner made a career out of analysing legends. But she is less comfortable with her own.

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One morning in March, I drove to Kentish Town, in north-west London, for a storm-tossed walk with Professor Dame Marina Warner. The city was busier than it had been for months, and as I waited in the traffic, I found myself pondering the reasons for her continued relevance. It wasn’t a challenging exercise. Warner writes about myth – in particular, the ways in which cultures mythologise women, pelt them with projections and destroy them. It was barely 48 hours before the Oprah interview aired in the US, so Meghan Markle was everywhere, occupying the outsider-scapegoat-nuisance role previously filled, we learn from Warner’s books Alone of All Her Sex (1976) and Monuments and Maidens (1985), by such earlier Ms as Medea, Medusa, Minerva, Mary Magdalene, “Maggie” Thatcher and the Virgin Mary. And World Book Day had just come around again. Children in their millions had dressed up as Cinderella or Belle or Snow White, the fairy-tale figures whose histories were unearthed in From the Beast to the Blonde (1994), No Go the Bogeyman (1998), and Once Upon a Time (2014). The back seat of my Honda was still draped with discarded gowns. You might call this a simple coincidence. But the sorts of fear and fantasy explored in Warner’s work are always near to hand.

Though she seems at times not to recognise this, Warner occupies a unique position among British cultural figures. Her work reconciles a largely white-male discipline – post-rationalist thinking about symbol and allegory – with the polemical arguments of feminism and post-colonialism. Reading through her shelf of books, one is reminded of Sigmund Freud and Roland Barthes, then Salman Rushdie and Jacqueline Rose.

Her range of talents is astounding. Given her scholarly diligence, she could easily have got away with being less imaginative in her use of sources, and a less stylish and flexible writer of prose; given her light touch – and the fact that she didn’t hold a full-time academic job until late middle age – she would have been forgiven an indifference to the theoretical dialects of which she displays such powerful command. The late American critic Harold Bloom, reviewing Stranger Magic, her book on the Arabian Nights, called her a “magus”, and expressed his regret that he had never met her. (He later did.)

Inventory of a Life Mislaid, Warner’s glorious new book, turns its attention to her parents’ marriage. Her father, Esmond, was a descendant of white Trinidadians, the son of the legendary cricketer Pelham “Plum” Warner, who met Warner’s Italian mother during the war. Warner was born in England in 1946, shortly before the family moved to Cairo, where her father opened a bookshop under the auspices of WH Smith. As a caveat or confession, Warner has chosen the subtitle “An Unreliable Memoir”. She fabricates dialogue, imagines thoughts, fills in the blanks.

“I very much believe in the truth-telling power of invention,” she told me. “I’m not saying that there’s no truth at all. There are events. But experience tells me that fiction and memoir are close in many ways.” She considered approaching the book as a novel. Talking about her godfather, the campaigner Lord Longford, she said, “I could have just about put him in as himself. But somebody like my grandfather” – once known as the Grand Old Man of English cricket – “is not quite famous enough to come in as a walk-on under his own name in a novel. It’s more interesting that this was my father’s childhood.”

***

We were sitting in a public garden not far from the mews where she lives. Warner has a wonderful booming cut-glass voice and speaks fluently, in fine grandiloquent sentences, with occasional dramatic pauses that create a stuttering rhythm. But she was wearing a mask, and the winds were exceeding 20mph. Later, in a more comfortable and audible set-up, we sat opposite one another in her front garden while her husband, the mathematician Graeme Segal, served us coffee and biscuits. The following week, we caught up on the phone.

Warner has been likened to Zuleika Dobson, the beguiling heroine of Max Beerbohm’s Oxford novel of the same name, but a closer analogy may be Woody Allen’s surreally ubiquitous Leonard Zelig. She was in London in 1967, Paris in 1968, Vietnam during the war, Washington during Watergate. And she has many Venn diagrams to herself: the one for people who have been the serial winner on a game show (Double Your Money) and appeared on the Booker Prize shortlist (for The Lost Father in 1988), or who have spent time with with Teddy Kennedy and uttered the sentence, “I don’t know enough about trolls in the past.” Doris Lessing once said that she couldn’t keep up with Warner, adding “nobody can”. The satirist Craig Brown wrote a column explaining that radio and television producers had been frustrated in their efforts to include Warner on every single discussion programme, and that by way of response, the trade secretary Lord Young had developed the first in “a new range of pocket-size, cordless Marina Warners”, with areas of expertise including all the arts, men and women in history, and “everything else”.

Among intellectuals, Warner’s closest precedent may be Susan Sontag. Like Sontag, Warner came to prominence around the age of 30 for her non-fiction, but proceeded to publish celebrated historical novels. She has spent the majority of her career as a freelance intellectual, publishing books with trade presses, delivering endowed lectures, writing essays for periodicals. And like Sontag, she is a theorist and historian of images who was herself much photographed, though Warner arguably goes one better, being a specialist in female iconography who was the subject of an objectifying pop song: Dire Straits’s “Lady Writer”.

After her father’s bookshop burned down in the Cairo fire of 1952, Warner was educated in Brussels, and then at St Mary’s, Ascot, a convent school. She recognises that she was “spoilt”, “lucky”, “privileged”. As a teenager, she was taken for lunch in Soho by Lord Longford and sent to learn Italian in Florence. But she said that she isn’t “very sympathetic to identity politics. I find it discriminatory when of course it is supposed to be emancipatory. And it’s only for certain categories of people.” (Her husband is Jewish.) “One aspect of Catholicism that I have retained is the belief that people can sincerely change, and also that they should not be stigmatised for their origins throughout.”

An upper-class upbringing brought obstacles as well as advantages. With a crusty father – who thought Catholicism “a good religion for a girl” – and an anti-feminist mother, she was wholly expected to become, as she once put it, “an ornament to a household”. She was driven by what she calls her “interests” to carve a different path. She told me that at first she “wasn’t a tremendous outlier”. Though she studied French and Italian at Oxford, she wasn’t awarded a scholarship, and didn’t get a first. She was, it must be noted, rather busy – at parties and dinners, trawling the Ashmolean Museum, editing the student magazine Isis, travelling to London for Double Your Money. But she was invited to continue her studies with the French faculty, doing scholarly work on medieval manuscripts. “It wasn’t my gift,” she said. “I knew that.” She added, “I wanted to be in the world.” In 1967, the year she graduated, she was offered a job as a writer at the Telegraph magazine, and recalls her sense of “mad excitement” at becoming a denizen of Fleet Street.

***

One of Warner’s abiding memories is of her parents sitting by the fireplace, her father reading the Times Literary Supplement, her mother reading Vogue. Her own fate was not to be tossed between these identities but to find room in her life for both. Like her father, who once gave her a guided tour of pre-revolutionary Paris, she was besotted with foreign cultures – China, western Europe, Scandinavia, the Caribbean, the Middle East. She inherited her mother’s taste for fashion, and used to make her own clothes. (I was glad to observe that she had on a simple dark-green overcoat, sparing me from asking her the names of patterns, buttons, fabrics, and so on.) She belonged to the first generation of women who, as she has written, could wear mini-skirts and get a degree. And by the end of the 1960s, she was working for Vogue while freelancing for the TLS. (The improbable opening sentence of her earliest contribution was, “A football referee is lynched.”)

In 1972, she left Vogue and, at the urging of the poet and publisher Cecil Day-Lewis, who had rejected her first attempt at a novel, wrote a historical biography of Tz’u-Hsi, the empress dowager of the Ch’ing dynasty. When her husband the journalist William Shawcross was awarded a Congressional Fellowship by the Harkness Foundation, she went with him to New York. He wrote articles for the New Statesman, and helped Senator Teddy Kennedy with a proposal for a national health service. (“This was when Willie was left-wing,” she clarified.) Meanwhile, she took a work space at the Library of Congress – “a carrel, as they call them, up in the dome” – and set about writing another book. The holdings were thematically indexed. Warner made her way systematically through the drawers marked Virgin Mary. “I just stayed there, worked all the time.” The result was Alone of All Her Sex, her rumination on the afterlife of Mary – the subject Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits saw her discussing “on the TV” – and still perhaps her best-known book.

Warner and Shawcross had a son, Conrad, now a celebrated sculptor, but divorced in 1980, the year she moved to Kentish Town. In 1981, she married the artist John Dewe Mathews, and published her life of Joan of Arc – a dull assignment, she claimed. Conrad Shawcross has recalled spending a lot of time looking at statuary and stained glass, explaining that Warner didn’t want to go to water slides (or even “the park”). An early product of all that wandering around was Monument and Maidens (1985), Warner’s vibrant, ingenious portrait of objectification.

***

Around this time, Warner received a phone call from the Getty Center for Arts and Humanities, in Los Angeles: would she like to be a visiting scholar? She burst into tears. “I had no expectations of such a thing in my life,” she told me. At some point since, she must have acclimatised. Looking back, it seems that Warner became garlanded in the way that Bill, in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, went bankrupt – gradually, then suddenly. During her time at the Getty, she completed The Lost Father, a novel with resemblances to Elena Ferrante and The Leopard, which appeared on the Booker shortlist and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in the Europe and South Asia category. As Warner became more prominent, her work shifted direction, becoming more self-consciously historical, even relativist in approach, emphasising shifting mores and the different priorities of non-European cultures. (Indigo, the successor to The Lost Father, was a reworking of The Tempest.) She told me that now she considers Freud “too universalising”.

The year 1994 was a moment of arrival that also marked a turning point. She delivered her Reith lectures under the title “Managing Monsters” – probably the best starting-point for new readers of her work – and published From the Beast to the Blonde, the book, started during the Getty visit, that most shaped her professional identity. Warner views fairy tales as an example of popular or “unlettered” art, and of the unheralded contribution to culture not just of women but children – “They’re so quick at languages, they’re the conduits very often.” She had been inspired to work in this field by, among other things, the stories of her friend, Angela Carter, whom she met in the 1960s during her time on Vogue. (Carter later skewered Warner’s first novel, In a Dark Wood, but a friendship blossomed regardless.) She has now held all manner of posts and lectureships, and had stints at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and All Souls College, Oxford, where, in 2001, she met Graeme Segal. (He was the first fellow who didn’t start by asking a question about her grandfather.) Eventually, at the age of almost 60, she took up an academic job, as a professor at Essex, and after growing sick of the managerial culture, moved to Birkbeck.

[see also: The ruthless, self-questioning brilliance of Janet Malcolm]

She told me that with official recognition – “worldly success” – came a feeling of internal division. “It was so difficult. I know it sounds mad. I don’t like that side of myself that has become an establishment figure,” she said, referring to the succession of honours she has received, starting with the CBE in 2008. “I’m too much a child of the Sixties. I have many contemporaries who turned down all decorations.” She added, “Of course there’s a side of me that is very… feels very…” She trailed off. “And then other people pay attention to it!”

As a presence, Warner is forbidding and frequently humbling. During our conversations, she mentioned Angelina Jolie and NWA, described New York City firemen as “angelic colossi” and modern astrology as a “Deriddean quagmire”, and questioned Audre Lorde’s idea that you cannot use the master’s weapons to “dismantle the master’s house”. (“You absolutely can!”) She was far better than I was at retaining the thread of our discussion. My only conceivable advantage – apart from being able to recommend the work of the convent-educated pop singer FKA Twigs – was that like virtually anyone who meets her, I seemed to possess a surer grasp of certain things about Marina Warner.

She concedes that she is not especially given to introspection. While her work turns on anxieties and ideas of selfhood, it is rarely personal. She credits her friend the writer Helen Simpson with the idea of including some of her own memories in the new book. “I’ve always found it very hard to know what I’m like,” she said. Writing, for her, is “a form of exploration. I love going on a quest. I love trying to find out about something. I haven’t really… I do think there is a kind of writing that doesn’t necessarily have to be self-examining.” Writing about Queen Victoria’s sketchbook in 1979, Warner claimed that she was “too practical to adopt the confessional tone, too dedicated to self-improvement to make an exhibition of herself”. But she believes that her Catholic upbringing offered a way of “examining my conscience every night” and “thinking about how I’ve related to other people.”

***

The gap between how Warner views herself and what may seem obvious to the outsider sometimes takes the form of a naivety that borders on the obstinate. Of her father’s education at Eton, she told me, “I’d never really owned up to that before”, before adding that her husband “seems to think that people knew that I came from that sort of background”. She has also said that until Segal remarked on it, she had never recognised the precariousness of her freelance existence. (Conrad Shawcross once said that while everyone thought his mother “can afford things”, she regularly wrote articles that paid £100.)

More often, the gap points to insecurity – a self-image apparently untouched by the decades of rapture over her charisma, intelligence and freedom from cant. She was taken aback when I asked if she had considered writing a book about her adult life, as if her career was of less note than anyone who had ever published a memoir. When she was awarded a fellowship at All Souls in 2013, or the Holberg Prize by the Norwegian parliament two years later, she worried that people would be sceptical or appalled: “Why her?” As we parted ways, after two hours of fluent erudition, she muttered, “I hope it was all right.”

It may just be that the setbacks register as strongly as the successes. Stranger Magic, her 2011 book on the Arabian Nights, had a dream reception but is already out of print. And she has been an easy target for those who would characterise her as a champagne socialist, or media pontiff, or “Aunt Sally”, in her term, or an English intellectual, or just a woman writing outside academia on predominantly female subjects. Despite giving a Reith lecture on the idea of the island race, she has never been asked to say anything about Brexit. 

Towards the end of our encounter, Warner said, “I curse myself that I’ve never actually written a book of myths. I’ve used a lot of myths in my work, rewritten them.” She confessed that when Stephen Fry or Neil Gaiman publish a book of myths, she finds herself thinking, “I’ve been doing this my entire life! Why do I not do this?” I asked if there was a technical reason. She said it was “a sense of inadequacy”. And where, I asked, does that come from? “Being a girl,” she replied with a shrug. Then she warded off self-pity, or perhaps just the spectre of an insuperable obstacle. “I could have done it, and possibly still can do it,” she said. Then she doubled down. “It’s to come. It’s to come!”

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.